Opening address, State of the Pacific 2015 Conference

  • Speech, check against delivery
07 September 2015

It is always a delight to be at ANU. In fact when I was Education Minister, I often said that the Australian National University was the only university owned and established by the Australian Government and therefore it should hold a very special place in our heart, and it does and will continue to do so.

I acknowledge the distinguished guests here today including High Commissioner Charles Lepani and Charles we wish you all the best for the Independence celebrations on the16th of September. I know my Prime Minister is looking forward to being in Port Moresby this week for the Pacific Island Leaders' Forum.

Ladies and gentlemen. The last 12 months has been an exciting time in the Pacific and today I want to focus on some of the challenges and some of the opportunities and to reiterate to you that the Pacific is a primary area of focus for the Australian Government. It is a foreign policy priority for us to engage closely with the Pacific and to support peace, prosperity and stability in our region and our neighbourhood. This ANU State of the Pacific Address gives me the opportunity to talk about some of the highlights.

When I was the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, I travelled extensively throughout the Pacific and I have continued to do that as Foreign Minister. Indeed in my now two years as Foreign Minister, I have visited Papua New Guinea on numerous occasions and New Zealand on many occasions, and Fiji, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and Vanuatu on more than one occasion. And we have a trip scheduled in October that will also be an extensive tour of the Pacific. I think it's important for me to be there to meet my counterparts, and to talk to local communities.

This year was also a first because I invited the foreign ministers of the Pacific Island nations to Australia for a forum in Sydney in July. This was the first time that the foreign ministers, or those who have the foreign ministry portfolio, were able to gather together in advance of the Pacific Island Leaders' Meeting to discuss issues of mutual interest and concern. Our main focus was on disaster management and better preparedness and how we could work more cooperatively to respond to the natural disasters that this region inevitably experiences.

We are one of the most natural-disaster-prone regions in the world and we must all work together to ensure that we can respond as quickly as possible to the inevitable consequences of these natural disasters.

And of course we saw that in Vanuatu where the islands were devastated by Cyclone Pam. Australia responded as quickly as we could and when I visited Port Vila a few days after the cyclone had hit, I received very warm responses from people on the ground who said they thought they were alone. It was absolutely devastating and then when they saw the Australian military planes flying in on that Sunday morning filled with personnel, lifesaving equipment and supplies, they knew they were not alone and that Australia was there for them, and we always will be. Australia has committed $50 million to Vanuatu for not only the disaster relief in the immediate aftermath but also for its reconstruction.

So this Pacific Island Foreign Ministers' Meeting was a great opportunity for us to discuss issues of interest and concern, and indeed I hope that it becomes an annual event. My counterpart ministers thought that Sydney was just a great place to hold it but I'm not sure it wouldn't be a better idea to try and share it around the Pacific. But I'm happy to host it in Sydney each and every year!

On the issue of disaster management and preparedness, inevitably the issue of climate change arises and I am pleased to confirm that Australia has taken a significant role in supporting the Pacific in its efforts to combat the impact of climate change. Indeed when I attended the Lima Conference and we committed $200m to the Green Climate Fund, I made it clear at the time that Australia would use all our efforts and resources to ensure that the Pacific got its fair share of the Green Climate Fund. Indeed we have a seat on the board of the Fund and so now I'm in a position to ensure that we use our influence to make sure that the Pacific features on the Green Climate Fund's agenda. We have also announced our targets that we will take to the Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of the year and I'm pleased to say that Australia is one of few countries that set a target of 2012 and met it, and exceeded it, we set a target for 2020 and we are on track to not only meeting it but exceeding it.

Now there are a number of countries that set targets and don't meet them, or indeed pull out from the target, but Australia says what it will do, and then does what it said it would do. In that regard the targets of a reduction between 26 and 28 percent by 2030 on 2005 levels is achievable, sustainable and responsible. It is around the United States target, it is about the same as Canada and Japan, it is in excess of Korea, China and the like. But as I point out, Australia is responsible for one per cent of global emissions and even if Australia were to close its economy down, we still have to account for 99 percent of global emissions. So what we are doing is responsible and achievable. Importantly, because our per capita emissions are higher, because of the size of our continent, our reliance on coal and the size of our population, under our new targets that we believe we will meet by 2030, Australia will halve its per capita emissions. I think it's an extraordinary outcome.

We are also working very closely with our partners in the Pacific to ensure that our aid is spent in ways that they believe are important. In an environment of constraint because of Budget deficits and massive debt, Australia has had to find savings, including in the aid budget. Yet I was able to preserve bilateral aid programs with our friends in the Pacific and our aid program of more than $1.1 billion in the Pacific will go to activities and areas where those Pacific Islands feel it is most needed. We are working in cooperation with them, so if it's on climate adaptation to do with climate change, we are able to have that flexibility in the aid budget to respond to those requests.

I am also delighted to confirm that this year the New Colombo Plan which is a flagship program of the Coalition Government, whereby we've reversed the original Colombo Plan which brought students from the region to study in our universities. Over the period of 1950s to 1980s over 40,000 students came to Australia under the original Colombo Plan to study in our universities, to gain qualifications and go back to their home countries to build their economies and add to their communities.

We have reversed the Colombo Plan and are now sending Australian students into our region, to study in universities in our region, gain work experience in our region, to live and study amongst the universities and communities of our region. It has been an extraordinary success. By the end of 2016, around 10,000 Australian students will have studied in the Indian Ocean, Asian-Pacific region under the New Colombo Plan.

In 2015 we rolled it out across the Pacific and I can confirm that by the end of next year 653 students from Australian universities will have lived, studied and worked in the Pacific. We have 40 students going to the Cook Islands, 140 to Fiji, 10 to Kiribati,10 to Palau, 58 to Papua New Guinea, 122 to Samoa, 188 to the Solomon Islands, 36 to Tonga, 49 to Vanuatu and as more students understand the benefits and great experience that they will get from living and studying and working in the Pacific, I think those numbers will increase significantly. So I'm delighted that the New Colombo Plan is now in the Pacific and we're working with the universities of the South Pacific and the colleges that have been set up in the Pacific and providing wonderful opportunities for our students.

This morning I want to focus on a particular aspect of Australia's support for economic growth and economic resilience in the Pacific and at this conference last year some of you might recall that I mentioned that we were keen to expand our Seasonal Workers' Program to help build labour mobility in the Pacific. Well in the last 12 months, we've held true to that. More and more we see the potential of boosting Pacific labour mobility and through the Government's White Paper on developing northern Australia we are able to expand the Seasonal Worker's Program in ways that we hadn't envisaged previously.

So today I'll set out what the Australian Government is doing on the labour mobility front, and explain why we think it's a valuable contribution to economic growth in the Pacific and to economic resilience in our part of the world. The Seasonal Worker Program has been in operation now for three years, following a successful pilot. Since 2012, growing numbers of people from Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and eight Pacific Island nations have been coming to Australia to take part in seasonal work, mainly in horticulture. Altogether, more than 6000 people have come to Australia under the scheme.

The scheme has multiple objectives – not least, from the perspective of the employers and communities in some of Australia's horticultural heartlands, to ensure access to a productive and reliable workforce. From the national perspective, the scheme has benefits beyond simply filling labour gaps in the Australian market – as worthwhile as that objective is. From a foreign policy viewpoint, the scheme is highly complementary to our broader development goals.

It provides income for the individual workers, of course. And in the Pacific, much of that income - the remittances - finds its way back to the source countries, and remittances as we all know are a significant driver of economic growth in the Pacific. Five per cent of Fiji's Gross National Income is via remittances. In Samoa and Tonga for example, the contribution is much greater – 24 and 26 per cent respectively.

Of course, not all of these remittances are coming back from workers taking part in the Seasonal Worker Program, nor are they all coming from Australia. Nonetheless, a analysis of the development impact of the Seasonal Worker Program found that, on average, workers were remitting around A$5,000 over a six-month period, increasing household incomes by around 40 per cent. Once back in the Pacific, that money is spent on better health, on education and on improving homes, improving lifestyles and improving the standard of living.

Our experience is that it is also spent on developing small businesses – and I think it's fair to say that everyone here would know how supportive I am of building a stronger private sector in developing countries. Through the Seasonal Worker Program, Australia is not only helping thousands of Pacific Islanders earn more income, it is supporting the future of these communities.

As a region, the Pacific is undergoing a challenging demographic change, with a strongly growing population, on current projections, to 2030. A growing population is a good thing, but it brings challenges with it, providing services, schools and hospitals, of creating jobs and opportunity.In that sense, the Seasonal Worker Program is complementary with our broader development objectives for the Pacific - objectives which are centred on building stronger growth, helping develop a robust private sector and ensuring that the spirit of entrepreneurialism can thrive.

We have a clear national interest in the long-term stability and prosperity of the Pacific. This year, through the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia, we announced that we would be inviting the Cook Islands, Micronesia, Niue, Palau and the Republic of Marshall Islands, to join the Seasonal Workers Program, once the PACER Plus agreement is finalised. We're already half-way there in terms of the text of PACER Plus - the trade-liberalising agreement for the Pacific - and we're very keen to finalise a deal that will help streamline and drive trade, investment and growth in the Pacific. We also announced we would be expanding the sectors to which seasonal workers could apply.

We've increased opportunities in the broader agricultural sector. We have included the accommodation sector in the Program on an ongoing basis. And we are inviting the Northern Australian tourism industry to apply for a pilot program. Opening up Northern Australia is a key goal of the Coalition Government. We see extraordinary potential for Australia to benefit from the exploding Asian middle class, particularly in providing more of the high-quality food and agricultural exports for which Australia is renowned. This will be a major development for Australia – and one in which we see an important, significant role for the Pacific.

With that in mind, we also announced, through the White Paper, a new pilot visa program for people from Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu to help address labour shortages across the North. These visas won't be for seasonal work, but will target occupations with labour shortages. I think this is a significant development and more of our support for labour mobility will follow.

In my time as Foreign Minister, I've talked a lot about the need to overcome gender inequality through our development program and focus on the empowerment of women and girls. I know many Pacific states are making progress in this regard, but we've observed, through the Seasonal Worker Program, a strong bias towards men, rather than women. There are of course cultural and social reasons for this, but at 13 per cent of all seasonal workers, I think we need to do more to encourage women to engage in the program and we are designing a pilot program now to trial creative ways to ensure benefits from the program are embraced by women. Of course the economic empowerment of women is such an economic driver for the Pacific.

Ladies and gentlemen, delegates to this conference, as you start the 2015 State of the Pacific conference today, please be assured that Australia is a committed partner and hopefully a partner of choice to our Pacific island friends, a partner who believes very strongly that the future of our region depends on our ability to maintain peace and prosperity, and on our collective efforts to build sustainable communities and a business culture that supports economic growth.

This is a vast region that we share, and it is a region in which Australia wants to see peace, prosperity and stability and we will play our part. I congratulate you on the conference and declare it open.

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